Imagine you had just 14 days to live. Would it make you think about your life? Would you have accomplished all of your goals? Would it make you wonder if you had done the best you could possibly do? Would you have any regrets?
These were the questions faced by Sean Swarner when he was given just two weeks to live, after being diagnosed with Askin’s sarcoma when he was 15 years old.
But Swarner didn’t take the normal route of a cancer patient with a virulent, aggressive form of the rare cancer that affects just three in a million people.
“I chose to climb Mt. Everest,” he said.
At the Cancer and Exercise Symposium on November 17 at Western State College, Swarner told his story of twice staring down death and an amazing recovery that led him to the highest summits of all seven continents.
Swarner’s story began with a knee injury he suffered playing basketball when he was 13. The next day his body swelled up so much that his parents couldn’t even recognize him.
“Little did I know because of that knee injury, my life was about to change forever,” Swarner said. He was diagnosed with advanced fourth-stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and given just three months to live.
Hodgkins lymphoma is a cancer of the lymph nodes that attacks about one in every 125,000 people.
“While my friends were out chasing girls and worrying about the latest hairstyle, I was sitting on the floor of my shower, pulling clumps of hair out of the drain so the water could go down—crying my eyeballs out,” he said.
But Swarner said thanks to modern medicine, family support, prayer, “and an inner will to get up out of the hospital bed and get back into my life,” he came out of the hospital a happy, motivated young man.
“I not only survived, but I thrived,” he said. “In fact one week after chemo treatment I ran a 5k race.”
Unfortunately Swarner’s recovery from Hodgkin’s lymphoma wasn’t the end of his tribulations. During a routine check-up two years later, doctors discovered a golf-ball-sized tumor on his lung—apparently unrelated to the Hodgkin’s. They diagnosed him with Askin’s sarcoma and gave him just two weeks to live.
But despite the odds, again Swarner emerged from massive chemo and radiation treatments cancer-free and ready to get on with his life.
“In fact, one year after my last chemo treatment, I won my high school’s league track meet in the 800-meter run,” he said.
“And that’s with one functioning lung,” he added.
While in graduate school studying to be psychologist for cancer patients, Swarner said he realized he wasn’t ready for such emotional work. But he still wanted to make a difference in the lives of people touched by cancer.
“I wanted to show them that cancer is not a death sentence, and there truly is no mountain too high to climb,” he said.
After conducting some research with his brother, Swarner discovered that if he could summit Everest, he would become the first cancer survivor to do so.
“I thought, what better platform than the highest mountain in the world to explain the potential of the human body and spirit,” he said.
Once Swarmer decided to attempt the world’s highest summit, he moved from Florida to Estes Park, Colo. and began climbing every mountain he could find—often with a hundred-pound pack full of rocks for added training.
“When I have a goal in mind, I put on the blinders,” he said. “I saw myself on the summit of the mountain and I worked backwards to see how to get there,” he added.
But even after begging, borrowing and stealing the money to get to the Himalayas, the self-taught climber’s plans to summit the 29,000-foot peak were rebuffed by most companies leading Everest expeditions.
“There was no way a guide was going to take up a one-lunged, two-time cancer-surviving lunatic,” Swarner said.
Finally, with the help of Heather O’Neal of Global Interest LLC, Swarner hooked up with Wongchu Sherpa. The organizer of the IMAX Everest expedition, Wongchu agreed to help Swarner realize his dream.
“I figured if he could organize the National Geographic IMAX expedition, surely he could organize mine,” Swarner said.
But before tackling the peak, Swarner visited the Bhaktapur Cancer Center in Katmandu, Nepal. “I wanted to know if I was really influencing lives and giving people hope and inspiration,” he said, “because that’s what the trip was all about.”
The doctor told him pretty much every patient there was likely to die because of inadequate medical care. But Swarmer said when the doctor told the patients that he was a two-time survivor of cancer and was about to climb Everest, their eyes just lit up.
“It literally took all the strength I had to hold back tears,” he said.
At the center, Swarner gave a shirt that his father had given him to a 13-year old patient suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. It said, “I don’t always look like this—I’m on chemo.”
“I figured it brought me good luck through two cancers,” Swarner said, “and I told him to give it to someone else when he got better.”
Once on the mountain, Swarner found he had a seemingly remarkable ability to adjust to the extreme altitude, and after several days of ferrying loads up to the higher camps, Sean was ready for a summit bid.
However, just a few hours before his attempt, Swarner was struck by HACE—high-altitude cerebral edema, a potentially fatal swelling of the brain.
But miraculously, using bottled oxygen, Swarner recovered through the night. Describing himself as having “the world’s worst good luck,” Swarner said the sickness was a blessing in disguise. Everyone else who made a summit bid that day was turned back by bad weather—effectively forfeiting any chance of summiting.
But the delay gave Swarner the window he needed, and on May 16, 2002, the man the Sherpas call Dawa Dorje—meaning “strength and luck”—became the first cancer survivor to summit Everest. There he planted a flag adorned with the names of 100 people touched by cancer who inspired him on his quest.
Since then, Swarner has traveled throughout the world proving that even a two-time cancer survivor with one functioning lung can scale the highest peaks.
Swarner said he doesn’t know why he’s alive, but while cancer was the worst thing that ever happened to him, it was also the best thing.
“It made me realize we should not worry about dying, but we should worry about not living a life that matters,” he said.
And what about the shirt he gave the young Nepalese boy suffering from Hodgkin’s?
Swarner said when he went back to the center a few weeks ago, he asked the doctor about it.
“He wanted to let me know that it had been passed down through 30 survivors,” said Swarmer. “The doctor said the reason was—they just needed a little hope”
For more information about Sean Swarner and his amazing journey, go to www.cancerclimber.org.